Part 1 out of 16
MARK TWAIN'S LETTERS
MARK TWAIN--A BIOGRAPHICAL SUMMARY
SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS, for nearly half a century known and celebrated
as "Mark Twain," was born in Florida, Missouri, on November 30, 1835.
He was one of the foremost American philosophers of his day; he was the
world's most famous humorist of any day. During the later years of his
life he ranked not only as America's chief man of letters, but likewise
as her best known and best loved citizen.
The beginnings of that life were sufficiently unpromising. The family
was a good one, of old Virginia and Kentucky stock, but its circumstances
were reduced, its environment meager and disheartening. The father, John
Marshall Clemens--a lawyer by profession, a merchant by vocation--had
brought his household to Florida from Jamestown, Tennessee, somewhat
after the manner of judge Hawkins as pictured in The Gilded Age. Florida
was a small town then, a mere village of twenty-one houses located on
Salt River, but judge Clemens, as he was usually called, optimistic and
speculative in his temperament, believed in its future. Salt River would
be made navigable; Florida would become a metropolis. He established a
small business there, and located his family in the humble frame cottage
where, five months later, was born a baby boy to whom they gave the name
of Samuel--a family name--and added Langhorne, after an old Virginia
friend of his father.
The child was puny, and did not make a very sturdy fight for life.
Still he weathered along, season after season, and survived two stronger
children, Margaret and Benjamin. By 1839 Judge Clemens had lost faith in
Florida. He removed his family to Hannibal, and in this Mississippi
River town the little lad whom the world was to know as Mark Twain spent
his early life. In Tom Sawyer we have a picture of the Hannibal of those
days and the atmosphere of his boyhood there.
His schooling was brief and of a desultory kind. It ended one day in
1847, when his father died and it became necessary that each one should
help somewhat in the domestic crisis. His brother Orion, ten years his
senior, was already a printer by trade. Pamela, his sister; also
considerably older, had acquired music, and now took a few pupils.
The little boy Sam, at twelve, was apprenticed to a printer named Ament.
His wages consisted of his board and clothes--"more board than clothes,"
as he once remarked to the writer.
He remained with Ament until his brother Orion bought out a small paper
in Hannibal in 1850. The paper, in time, was moved into a part of the
Clemens home, and the two brothers ran it, the younger setting most of
the type. A still younger brother, Henry, entered the office as an
apprentice. The Hannibal journal was no great paper from the beginning,
and it did not improve with time. Still, it managed to survive--country
papers nearly always manage to survive--year after year, bringing in some
sort of return. It was on this paper that young Sam Clemens began his
writings--burlesque, as a rule, of local characters and conditions--
usually published in his brother's absence; generally resulting in
trouble on his return. Yet they made the paper sell, and if Orion had
but realized his brother's talent he might have turned it into capital
In 1853 (he was not yet eighteen) Sam Clemens grew tired of his
limitations and pined for the wider horizon of the world. He gave out to
his family that he was going to St. Louis, but he kept on to New York,
where a World's Fair was then going on. In New York he found employment
at his trade, and during the hot months of 1853 worked in a printing-
office in Cliff Street. By and by he went to Philadelphia, where he
worked a brief time; made a trip to Washington, and presently set out for
the West again, after an absence of more than a year.
Onion, meanwhile, had established himself at Muscatine, Iowa, but soon
after removed to Keokuk, where the brothers were once more together,
till following their trade. Young Sam Clemens remained in Keokuk until
the winter of 1856-57, when he caught a touch of the South-American fever
then prevalent; and decided to go to Brazil. He left Keokuk for
Cincinnati, worked that winter in a printing-office there, and in April
took the little steamer, Paul Jones, for New Orleans, where he expected
to find a South-American vessel. In Life on the Mississippi we have his
story of how he met Horace Bixby and decided to become a pilot instead of
a South American adventurer--jauntily setting himself the stupendous task
of learning the twelve hundred miles of the Mississippi River between St.
Louis and New Orleans--of knowing it as exactly and as unfailingly, even
in the dark, as one knows the way to his own features. It seems
incredible to those who knew Mark Twain in his later years--dreamy,
unpractical, and indifferent to details--that he could have acquired so
vast a store of minute facts as were required by that task. Yet within
eighteen months he had become not only a pilot, but one of the best and
most careful pilots on the river, intrusted with some of the largest and
most valuable steamers. He continued in that profession for two and a
half years longer, and during that time met with no disaster that cost
his owners a single dollar for damage.
Then the war broke out. South Carolina seceded in December, 1860 and
other States followed. Clemens was in New Orleans in January, 1861, when
Louisiana seceded, and his boat was put into the Confederate service and
sent up the Red River. His occupation gone, he took steamer for the
North--the last one before the blockade closed. A blank cartridge was
fired at them from Jefferson Barracks when they reached St. Louis, but
they did not understand the signal, and kept on. Presently a shell
carried away part of the pilot-house and considerably disturbed its
inmates. They realized, then, that war had really begun.
In those days Clemens's sympathies were with the South. He hurried up to
Hannibal and enlisted with a company of young fellows who were recruiting
with the avowed purpose of "throwing off the yoke of the invader." They
were ready for the field, presently, and set out in good order, a sort of
nondescript cavalry detachment, mounted on animals more picturesque than
beautiful. Still, it was a resolute band, and might have done very well,
only it rained a good deal, which made soldiering disagreeable and hard.
Lieutenant Clemens resigned at the end of two weeks, and decided to go to
Nevada with Orion, who was a Union abolitionist and had received an
appointment from Lincoln as Secretary of the new Territory.
In 'Roughing It' Mark Twain gives us the story of the overland journey
made by the two brothers, and a picture of experiences at the other end
--true in aspect, even if here and there elaborated in detail. He was
Orion's private secretary, but there was no private-secretary work to do,
and no salary attached to the position. The incumbent presently went to
mining, adding that to his other trades.
He became a professional miner, but not a rich one. He was at Aurora,
California, in the Esmeralda district, skimping along, with not much to
eat and less to wear, when he was summoned by Joe Goodman, owner and
editor of the Virginia City Enterprise, to come up and take the local
editorship of that paper. He had been contributing sketches to it now
and then, under the pen, name of "Josh," and Goodman, a man of fine
literary instincts, recognized a talent full of possibilities. This was
in the late summer of 1862. Clemens walked one hundred and thirty miles
over very bad roads to take the job, and arrived way-worn and travel-
stained. He began on a salary of twenty-five dollars a week, picking up
news items here and there, and contributing occasional sketches,
burlesques, hoaxes, and the like. When the Legislature convened at
Carson City he was sent down to report it, and then, for the first time,
began signing his articles "Mark Twain," a river term, used in making
soundings, recalled from his piloting days. The name presently became
known up and down the Pacific coast. His articles were, copied and
commented upon. He was recognized as one of the foremost among a little
coterie of overland writers, two of whom, Mark Twain and Bret Harte, were
soon to acquire a world-wide fame.
He left Carson City one day, after becoming involved in a duel, the
result of an editorial squib written in Goodman's absence, and went
across the Sierras to San Francisco. The duel turned out farcically
enough, but the Nevada law, which regarded even a challenge or its
acceptance as a felony, was an inducement to his departure. Furthermore,
he had already aspired to a wider field of literary effort. He attached
himself to the Morning Call, and wrote occasionally for one or two
literary papers--the Golden Era and the Californian---prospering well
enough during the better part of the year. Bret Harte and the rest of
the little Pacific-slope group were also on the staff of these papers,
and for a time, at least, the new school of American humor mustered in
The connection with the Call was not congenial. In due course it came to
a natural end, and Mark Twain arranged to do a daily San Francisco letter
for his old paper, the Enterprise. The Enterprise letters stirred up
trouble. They criticized the police of San Francisco so severely that
the officials found means of making the writer's life there difficult and
comfortless. With Jim Gillis, brother of a printer of whom he was fond,
and who had been the indirect cause of his troubles, he went up into
Calaveras County, to a cabin on jackass Hill. Jim Gillis, a lovable,
picturesque character (the Truthful James of Bret Harte), owned mining
claims. Mark Twain decided to spend his vacation in pocket-mining, and
soon added that science to his store of knowledge. It was a halcyon,
happy three months that he lingered there, but did not make his fortune;
he only laid the corner-stone.
They tried their fortune at Angel's Camp, a place well known to readers
of Bret Harte. But it rained pretty steadily, and they put in most of
their time huddled around the single stove of the dingy hotel of Angel's,
telling yarns. Among the stories was one told by a dreary narrator named
Ben Coon. It was about a frog that had been trained to jump, but failed
to win a wager because the owner of a rival frog had surreptitiously
loaded him with shot. The story had been circulated among the camps, but
Mark Twain had never heard it until then. The tale and the tiresome
fashion of its telling amused him. He made notes to remember it.
Their stay in Angel's Camp came presently to an end. One day, when the
mining partners were following the specks of gold that led to a pocket
somewhere up the hill, a chill, dreary rain set in. Jim, as usual was
washing, and Clemens was carrying water. The "color" became better and
better as they ascended, and Gillis, possessed with the mining passion,
would have gone on, regardless of the rain. Clemens, however, protested,
and declared that each pail of water was his last. Finally he said, in
his deliberate drawl:
"Jim, I won't carry any more water. This work is too disagreeable.
Let's go to the house and wait till it clears up."
Gillis had just taken out a pan of earth. "Bring one more pail, Sam," he
"I won't do it, Jim! Not a drop! Not if I knew there was a million
dollars in that pan!"
They left the pan standing there and went back to Angel's Camp. The rain
continued and they returned to jackass Hill without visiting their claim
again. Meantime the rain had washed away the top of the pan of earth
left standing on the slope above Angel's, and exposed a handful of
nuggets-pure gold. Two strangers came along and, observing it, had sat
down to wait until the thirty-day claim-notice posted by Jim Gillis
should expire. They did not mind the rain--not with that gold in sight--
and the minute the thirty days were up they followed the lead a few pans
further, and took out-some say ten, some say twenty, thousand dollars.
It was a good pocket. Mark Twain missed it by one pail of water. Still,
it is just as well, perhaps, when one remembers The Jumping Frog.
Matters having quieted down in San Francisco, he returned and took up his
work again. Artemus Ward, whom he had met in Virginia City, wrote him
for something to use in his (Ward's) new book. Clemens sent the frog
story, but he had been dilatory in preparing it, and when it reached New
York, Carleton, the publisher, had Ward's book about ready for the press.
It did not seem worth while to Carleton to include the frog story, and
handed it over to Henry Clapp, editor of the Saturday Press--a perishing
"Here, Clapp, here's something you can use."
The story appeared in the Saturday Press of November 18, 1865. According
to the accounts of that time it set all New York in a roar, which
annoyed, rather than gratified, its author. He had thought very little
of it, indeed, yet had been wondering why some of his more highly
regarded work had not found fuller recognition.
But The Jumping Frog did not die. Papers printed it and reprinted it,
and it was translated into foreign tongues. The name of "Mark Twain"
became known as the author of that sketch, and the two were permanently
associated from the day of its publication.
Such fame as it brought did not yield heavy financial return. Its author
continued to win a more or less precarious livelihood doing miscellaneous
work, until March, 1866, when he was employed by the Sacramento Union to
contribute a series of letters from the Sandwich Islands. They were
notable letters, widely read and freely copied, and the sojourn there was
a generally fortunate one. It was during his stay in the islands that
the survivors of the wrecked vessel, the Hornet, came in, after long
privation at sea. Clemens was sick at the time, but Anson Burlingame,
who was in Honolulu, on the way to China, had him carried in a cot to the
hospital, where he could interview the surviving sailors and take down
their story. It proved a great "beat" for the Union, and added
considerably to its author's prestige. On his return to San Francisco he
contributed an article on the Hornet disaster to Harper's Magazine, and
looked forward to its publication as a beginning of a real career. But,
alas! when it appeared the printer and the proof-reader had somehow
converted "Mark Twain" into "Mark Swain," and his dreams perished.
Undecided as to his plans, he was one day advised by a friend to deliver
a lecture. He was already known as an entertaining talker, and his
adviser judged his possibilities well. In Roughing It we find the story
of that first lecture and its success. He followed it with other
lectures up and down the Coast. He had added one more profession to his
intellectual stock in trade.
Mark Twain, now provided with money, decided to pay a visit to his
people. He set out for the East in December, 1866, via Panama, arriving
in New York in January. A few days later he was with his mother, then
living with his sister, in St. Louis. A little later he lectured in
Keokuk, and in Hannibal, his old home.
It was about this time that the first great Mediterranean steamship
excursion began to be exploited. No such ocean picnic had ever been
planned before, and it created a good deal of interest East and West.
Mark Twain heard of it and wanted to go. He wrote to friends on the
'Alta California,' of San Francisco, and the publishers of that paper had
sufficient faith to advance the money for his passage, on the
understanding that he was to contribute frequent letters, at twenty
dollars apiece. It was a liberal offer, as rates went in those days, and
a godsend in the fullest sense of the word to Mark Twain.
Clemens now hurried to New York in order to be there in good season for
the sailing date, which was in June. In New York he met Frank Fuller,
whom he had known as territorial Governor of Utah, an energetic and
enthusiastic admirer of the Western humorist. Fuller immediately
proposed that Clemens give a lecture in order to establish his reputation
on the Atlantic coast. Clemens demurred, but Fuller insisted, and
engaged Cooper Union for the occasion. Not many tickets were sold.
Fuller, however, always ready for an emergency, sent out a flood of
complimentaries to the school-teachers of New York and adjacent
territory, and the house was crammed. It turned out to be a notable
event. Mark Twain was at his best that night; the audience laughed
until, as some of them declared when the lecture was over, they were too
weak to leave their seats. His success as a lecturer was assured.
The Quaker City was the steamer selected for the great oriental tour.
It sailed as advertised, June 8, 1867, and was absent five months, during
which Mark Twain contributed regularly to the 'Alta-California', and
wrote several letters for the New York Tribune. They were read and
copied everywhere. They preached a new gospel in travel literature--
a gospel of seeing with an overflowing honesty; a gospel of sincerity in
according praise to whatever he considered genuine, and ridicule to the
things believed to be shams. It was a gospel that Mark Twain continued
to preach during his whole career. It became, in fact, his chief
literary message to the world, a world ready for that message.
He returned to find himself famous. Publishers were ready with plans for
collecting the letters in book form. The American Publishing Company,
of Hartford, proposed a volume, elaborately illustrated, to be sold by
subscription. He agreed with them as to terms, and went to Washington'
to prepare copy. But he could not work quietly there, and presently was
back in San Francisco, putting his book together, lecturing occasionally,
always to crowded houses. He returned in August, 1868, with the
manuscript of the Innocents Abroad, and that winter, while his book was
being manufactured, lectured throughout the East and Middle West, making
his headquarters in Hartford, and in Elmira, New York.
He had an especial reason for going to Elmira. On the Quaker City he had
met a young man by the name of Charles Langdon, and one day, in the Bay
of Smyrna, had seen a miniature of the boy's sister, Olivia Langdon, then
a girl of about twenty-two. He fell in love with that picture, and still
more deeply in love with the original when he met her in New York on his
return. The Langdon home was in Elmira, and it was for this reason that
as time passed he frequently sojourned there. When the proofs of the
Innocents Abroad were sent him he took them along, and he and sweet
"Livy" Langdon read them together. What he lacked in those days in
literary delicacy she detected, and together they pruned it away. She
became his editor that winter--a position which she held until her death.
The book was published in July, 1869, and its success was immediate and
abundant. On his wedding-day, February 2, 1870, Clemens received a check
from his publishers for more than four thousand dollars, royalty
accumulated during the three months preceding. The sales soon amounted
to more than fifty thousand copies, and had increased to very nearly one
hundred thousand at the end of the first three years. It was a book of
travel, its lowest price three dollars and fifty cents. Even with our
increased reading population no such sale is found for a book of that
description to-day. And the Innocents Abroad holds its place--still
outsells every other book in its particular field. [This in 1917. D.W.]
Mark Twain now decided to settle down. He had bought an interest in the
Express, of Buffalo, New York, and took up his residence in that city in
a house presented to the young couple by Mr. Langdon. It did not prove a
fortunate beginning. Sickness, death, and trouble of many kinds put a
blight on the happiness of their first married year and gave, them a
distaste for the home in which they had made such a promising start.
A baby boy, Langdon Clemens, came along in November, but he was never a
strong child. By the end of the following year the Clemenses had
arranged for a residence in Hartford, temporary at first, later made
permanent. It was in Hartford that little Langdon died, in 1872.
Clemens, meanwhile, had sold out his interest in the Express, severed his
connection with the Galaxy, a magazine for which he was doing a
department each month, and had written a second book for the American
Publishing Company, Roughing It, published in 1872. In August of the
same year he made a trip to London, to get material for a book on
England, but was too much sought after, too continuously feted, to do any
work. He went alone, but in November returned with the purpose of taking
Mrs. Clemens and the new baby, Susy, to England the following spring.
They sailed in April, 1873, and spent a good portion of the year in
England and Scotland. They returned to America in November, and Clemens
hurried back to London alone to deliver a notable series of lectures
under the management of George Dolby, formerly managing agent for Charles
Dickens. For two months Mark Twain lectured steadily to London
audiences--the big Hanover Square rooms always filled. He returned to
his family in January, 1874.
Meantime, a home was being built for them in Hartford, and in the autumn
of 1874 they took up residence in ita happy residence, continued through
seventeen years--well-nigh perfect years. Their summers they spent in
Elmira, on Quarry Farm--a beautiful hilltop, the home of Mrs. Clemens's
sister. It was in Elmira that much of Mark Twain's literary work was
done. He had a special study there, some distance from the house, where
he loved to work out his fancies and put them into visible form.
It was not so easy to work at Hartford; there was too much going on.
The Clemens home was a sort of general headquarters for literary folk,
near and far, and for distinguished foreign visitors of every sort.
Howells and Aldrich used it as their half-way station between Boston and
New York, and every foreign notable who visited America made a pilgrimage
to Hartford to see Mark Twain. Some even went as far as Elmira, among
them Rudyard Kipling, who recorded his visit in a chapter of his American
Notes. Kipling declared he had come all the way from India to see Mark
Hartford had its own literary group. Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe lived
near the Clemens home; also Charles Dudley Warner. The Clemens and
Warner families were constantly associated, and The Gilded Age, published
in 1873, resulted from the friendship of Warner and Mark Twain. The
character of Colonel Sellers in that book has become immortal, and it is
a character that only Mark Twain could create, for, though drawn from his
mother's cousin, James Lampton, it embodies--and in no very exaggerated
degree--characteristics that were his own. The tendency to make millions
was always imminent; temptation was always hard to resist. Money-making
schemes are continually being placed before men of means and prominence,
and Mark Twain, to the day of his death, found such schemes fatally
It was because of the Sellers characteristics in him that he invested in
a typesetting-machine which cost him nearly two hundred thousand dollars
and helped to wreck his fortunes by and by. It was because of this
characteristic that he invested in numberless schemes of lesser
importance, but no less disastrous in the end. His one successful
commercial venture was his association with Charles L. Webster in the
publication of the Grant Memoirs, of which enough copies were sold to pay
a royalty of more than four hundred thousand dollars to Grant's widow--
the largest royalty ever paid from any single publication. It saved the
Grant family from poverty. Yet even this triumph was a misfortune to
Mark Twain, for it led to scores of less profitable book ventures and
Meanwhile he had written and published a number of books. Tom Sawyer,
The Prince and the Pauper, Life on the Mississippi, Huckleberry Finn, and
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court were among the volumes that
had entertained the world and inspired it with admiration and love for
their author. In 1878-79 he had taken his family to Europe, where they
spent their time in traveling over the Continent. It was during this
period that he was joined by his intimate friend, the Rev. Joseph H.
Twichell, of Hartford, and the two made a journey, the story of which is
told in A Tramp Abroad.
In 1891 the Hartford house was again closed, this time indefinitely,
and the family, now five in number, took up residence in Berlin. The
typesetting-machine and the unfortunate publishing venture were drawing
heavily on the family finances at this period, and the cost of the
Hartford establishment was too great to be maintained. During the next
three years he was distracted by the financial struggle which ended in
April, 1894, with the failure of Charles L. Webster & Co. Mark Twain now
found himself bankrupt, and nearly one hundred thousand dollars in debt.
It had been a losing fight, with this bitter ending always in view;
yet during this period of hard, hopeless effort he had written a large
portion of the book which of all his works will perhaps survive the
longest--his tender and beautiful story of Joan of Arc. All his life
Joan had been his favorite character in the world's history, and during
those trying months and years of the early nineties--in Berlin, in
Florence, in Paris--he was conceiving and putting his picture of that
gentle girl-warrior into perfect literary form. It was published in
Harper's Magazine--anonymously, because, as he said, it would not have
been received seriously had it appeared over his own name. The
authorship was presently recognized. Exquisitely, reverently, as the
story was told, it had in it the, touch of quaint and gentle humor which
could only have been given to it by Mark Twain.
It was only now and then that Mark Twain lectured during these years.
He had made a reading tour with George W. Cable during the winter of
1884-85, but he abominated the platform, and often vowed he would never
appear before an audience again. Yet, in 1895, when he was sixty years
old, he decided to rebuild his fortunes by making a reading tour around
the world. It was not required of him to pay his debts in full. The
creditors were willing to accept fifty per cent. of the liabilities, and
had agreed to a settlement on that basis. But this did not satisfy Mrs.
Clemens, and it did not satisfy him. They decided to pay dollar for
dollar. They sailed for America, and in July, 1895, set out from Elmira
on the long trail across land and sea. Mrs. Clemens, and Clara Clemens,
joined this pilgrimage, Susy and Jean Clemens remaining at Elmira with
their aunt. Looking out of the car windows, the travelers saw Susy
waving them an adieu. It was a picture they would long remember.
The reading tour was one of triumph. High prices and crowded houses
prevailed everywhere. The author-reader visited Australia, New Zealand,
India, Ceylon, South Africa, arriving in England, at last, with the money
and material which would pay off the heavy burden of debt and make him
once more free before the world. And in that hour of triumph came the
heavy blow. Susy Clemens, never very strong, had been struck down. The
first cable announced her illness. The mother and Clara sailed at once.
Before they were half-way across the ocean a second cable announced that
Susy was dead. The father had to meet and endure the heartbreak alone;
he could not reach America, in time for the burial. He remained in
England, and was joined there by the sorrowing family.
They passed that winter in London, where he worked at the story of his
travels, Following the Equator, the proofs of which he read the next
summer in Switzerland. The returns from it, and from his reading
venture, wiped away Mark Twain's indebtedness and made him free. He
could go back to America; as he said, able to look any man in the face
Yet he did not go immediately. He could live more economically abroad,
and economy was still necessary. The family spent two winters in Vienna,
and their apartments there constituted a veritable court where the
world's notables gathered. Another winter in England followed, and then,
in the latter part of 1900, they went home--that is, to America. Mrs.
Clemens never could bring herself to return to Hartford, and never saw
their home there again.
Mark Twain's return to America, was in the nature of a national event.
Wherever he appeared throngs turned out to bid him welcome. Mighty
banquets were planned in his honor.
In a house at 14 West Tenth Street, and in a beautiful place at
Riverdale, on the Hudson, most of the next three years were passed. Then
Mrs. Clemens's health failed, and in the autumn of 1903 the family went
to Florence for her benefit. There, on the 5th of June, 1904, she died.
They brought her back and laid her beside Susy, at Elmira. That winter
the family took up residence at 21 Fifth Avenue, New York, and remained
there until the completion of Stormfield, at Redding, Connecticut, in
In his later life Mark Twain was accorded high academic honors. Already,
in 1888, he had received from Yale College the degree of Master of Arts,
and the same college made him a Doctor of Literature in 1901. A year
later the university of his own State, at Columbia, Missouri, conferred
the same degree, and then, in 1907, came the crowning honor, when
venerable Oxford tendered him the doctor's robe.
"I don't know why they should give me a degree like that," he said,
quaintly. "I never doctored any literature--I wouldn't know how."
He had thought never to cross the ocean again, but he declared he would
travel to Mars and back, if necessary, to get that Oxford degree.
He appreciated its full meaning-recognition by the world's foremost
institution of learning of the achievements of one who had no learning of
the institutionary kind. He sailed in June, and his sojourn in England
was marked by a continuous ovation. His hotel was besieged by callers.
Two secretaries were busy nearly twenty hours a day attending to visitors
and mail. When he appeared on the street his name went echoing in every
direction and the multitudes gathered. On the day when he rose, in his
scarlet robe and black mortar-board, to receive his degree (he must have
made a splendid picture in that dress, with his crown of silver hair),
the vast assembly went wild. What a triumph, indeed, for the little
Missouri printer-boy! It was the climax of a great career.
Mark Twain's work was always of a kind to make people talk, always
important, even when it was mere humor. Yet it was seldom that; there
was always wisdom under it, and purpose, and these things gave it dynamic
force and enduring life. Some of his aphorisms--so quaint in form as to
invite laughter--are yet fairly startling in their purport. His
paraphrase, "When in doubt, tell the truth," is of this sort. "Frankness
is a jewel; only the young can afford it," he once said to the writer,
apropos of a little girl's remark. His daily speech was full of such
things. The secret of his great charm was his great humanity and the
gentle quaintness and sincerity of his utterance.
His work did not cease when the pressing need of money came to an end.
He was full of ideas, and likely to begin a new article or story at any
time. He wrote and published a number of notable sketches, articles,
stories, even books, during these later years, among them that marvelous
short story--"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." In that story, as in
most of his later work, he proved to the world that he was much more than
a humorist--that he was, in fact, a great teacher, moralist, philosopher-
-the greatest, perhaps, of his age.
His life at Stormfield--he had never seen the place until the day of his
arrival, June 18, 1908--was a peaceful and serene old age. Not that he
was really old; he never was that. His step, his manner, his point of
view, were all and always young. He was fond of children and frequently
had them about him. He delighted in games--especially in billiards--and
in building the house at Stormfield the billiard-room was first
considered. He had a genuine passion for the sport; without it his
afternoon was not complete. His mornings he was likely to pass in bed,
smoking--he was always smoking--and attending to his correspondence and
reading. History and the sciences interested him, and his bed was strewn
with biographies and stories of astronomical and geological research.
The vastness of distances and periods always impressed him. He had no
head for figures, but he would labor for hours over scientific
calculations, trying to compass them and to grasp their gigantic import.
I remember once finding him highly elated over the fact that he had
figured out for himself the length in hours and minutes of a "light
year." He showed me the pages covered with figures, and was more proud of
them than if they had been the pages of an immortal story. Then we
played billiards, but even his favorite game could not make him
altogether forget his splendid achievement.
It was on the day before Christmas, 1909, that heavy bereavement once
more came into the life of Mark Twain. His daughter Jean, long subject
to epileptic attacks, was seized with a convulsion while in her bath and
died before assistance reached her. He was dazed by the suddenness of
the blow. His philosophy sustained him. He was glad, deeply glad for
the beautiful girl that had been released.
"I never greatly envied anybody but the dead," he said, when he had
looked at her. "I always envy the dead."
The coveted estate of silence, time's only absolute gift, it was the one
benefaction he had ever considered worth while.
Yet the years were not unkindly to Mark Twain. They brought him sorrow,
but they brought him likewise the capacity and opportunity for large
enjoyment, and at the last they laid upon him a kind of benediction.
Naturally impatient, he grew always more gentle, more generous, more
tractable and considerate as the seasons passed. His final days may be
said to have been spent in the tranquil light of a summer afternoon.
His own end followed by a few months that of his daughter. There were
already indications that his heart was seriously affected, and soon after
Jean's death he sought the warm climate of Bermuda. But his malady made
rapid progress, and in April he returned to Stormfield. He died there
just a week later, April 21, 1910.
Any attempt to designate Mark Twain's place in the world's literary
history would be presumptuous now. Yet I cannot help thinking that he
will maintain his supremacy in the century that produced him. I think so
because, of all the writers of that hundred years, his work was the most
human his utterances went most surely to the mark. In the long analysis
of the ages it is the truth that counts, and he never approximated, never
compromised, but pronounced those absolute verities to which every human
being of whatever rank must instantly respond.
His understanding of subjective human nature--the vast, unwritten life
within--was simply amazing. Such knowledge he acquired at the
fountainhead--that is, from himself. He recognized in himself an extreme
example of the human being with all the attributes of power and of
weakness, and he made his exposition complete.
The world will long miss Mark Twain; his example and his teaching will be
neither ignored nor forgotten. Genius defies the laws of perspective and
looms larger as it recedes. The memory of Mark Twain remains to us a
living and intimate presence that today, even more than in life,
constitutes a stately moral bulwark reared against hypocrisy and
superstition--a mighty national menace to sham.
MARK TWAIN'S LETTERS
EARLY LETTERS, 1853. NEW YORK AND PHILADELPHIA
We have no record of Mark Twain's earliest letters. Very likely
they were soiled pencil notes, written to some school sweetheart--
to "Becky Thatcher," perhaps--and tossed across at lucky moments,
or otherwise, with happy or disastrous results. One of those
smudgy, much-folded school notes of the Tom Sawyer period would be
priceless to-day, and somewhere among forgotten keepsakes it may
exist, but we shall not be likely to find it. No letter of his
boyhood, no scrap of his earlier writing, has come to light except
his penciled name, SAM CLEMENS, laboriously inscribed on the inside
of a small worn purse that once held his meager, almost non-existent
wealth. He became a printer's apprentice at twelve, but as he
received no salary, the need of a purse could not have been urgent.
He must have carried it pretty steadily, however, from its
appearance--as a kind of symbol of hope, maybe--a token of that
Sellers-optimism which dominated his early life, and was never
No other writing of any kind has been preserved from Sam Clemens's
boyhood, none from that period of his youth when he had served his
apprenticeship and was a capable printer on his brother's paper, a
contributor to it when occasion served. Letters and manuscripts of
those days have vanished--even his contributions in printed form are
unobtainable. It is not believed that a single number of Orion
Clemens's paper, the Hannibal Journal, exists to-day.
It was not until he was seventeen years old that Sam Clemens wrote a
letter any portion of which has survived. He was no longer in
Hannibal. Orion's unprosperous enterprise did not satisfy him.
His wish to earn money and to see the world had carried him first to
St. Louis, where his sister Pamela was living, then to New York
City, where a World's Fair in a Crystal Palace was in progress.
The letter tells of a visit to this great exhibition. It is not
complete, and the fragment bears no date, but it was written during
the summer of 1853.
Fragment of a letter from Sam L. Clemens to his sister
Pamela Moffett, in St. Louis, summer of 1853:
. . . From the gallery (second floor) you have a glorious sight--the
flags of the different countries represented, the lofty dome, glittering
jewelry, gaudy tapestry, &c., with the busy crowd passing to and fro--tis
a perfect fairy palace--beautiful beyond description.
The Machinery department is on the main floor, but I cannot enumerate any
of it on account of the lateness of the hour (past 8 o'clock.) It would
take more than a week to examine everything on exhibition; and as I was
only in a little over two hours tonight, I only glanced at about one-
third of the articles; and having a poor memory; I have enumerated
scarcely any of even the principal objects. The visitors to the Palace
average 6,000 daily--double the population of Hannibal. The price of
admission being 50 cents, they take in about $3,000.
The Latting Observatory (height about 280 feet) is near the Palace--from
it you can obtain a grand view of the city and the country round. The
Croton Aqueduct, to supply the city with water, is the greatest wonder
yet. Immense sewers are laid across the bed of the Hudson River, and
pass through the country to Westchester county, where a whole river is
turned from its course, and brought to New York. From the reservoir in
the city to the Westchester county reservoir, the distance is thirty-
eight miles! and if necessary, they could supply every family in New York
with one hundred barrels of water per day!
I am very sorry to learn that Henry has been sick. He ought to go to the
country and take exercise; for he is not half so healthy as Ma thinks he
is. If he had my walking to do, he would be another boy entirely. Four
times every day I walk a little over one mile; and working hard all day,
and walking four miles, is exercise--I am used to it, now, though, and it
is no trouble. Where is it Orion's going to? Tell Ma my promises are
faithfully kept, and if I have my health I will take her to Ky. in the
spring--I shall save money for this. Tell Jim and all the rest of them
to write, and give me all the news. I am sorry to hear such bad news
from Will and Captain Bowen. I shall write to Will soon. The Chatham-
square Post Office and the Broadway office too, are out of my way, and I
always go to the General Post Office; so you must write the direction of
my letters plain, "New York City, N. Y.," without giving the street or
anything of the kind, or they may go to some of the other offices. (It
has just struck 2 A.M. and I always get up at 6, and am at work at 7.)
You ask me where I spend my evenings. Where would you suppose, with a
free printers' library containing more than 4,000 volumes within a
quarter of a mile of me, and nobody at home to talk to? I shall write to
Ella soon. Write soon
Truly your Brother
P. S. I have written this by a light so dim that you nor Ma could not
read by it.
He was lodging in a mechanics' cheap boarding-house in Duane Street,
and we may imagine the bareness of his room, the feeble poverty of
"Tell Ma my promises are faithfully kept." It was the day when he
had left Hannibal. His mother, Jane Clemens, a resolute, wiry woman
of forty-nine, had put together his few belongings. Then, holding
up a little Testament:
"I want you to take hold of the end of this, Sam," she said, "and
make me a promise. I want you to repeat after me these words:
'I do solemnly swear that I will not throw a card, or drink a drop
of liquor while I am gone.'"
It was this oath, repeated after her, that he was keeping
faithfully. The Will Bowen mentioned is a former playmate, one of
Tom Sawyer's outlaw band. He had gone on the river to learn
piloting with an elder brother, the "Captain." What the bad news
was is no longer remembered, but it could not have been very
serious, for the Bowen boys remained on the river for many years.
"Ella" was Samuel Clemens's cousin and one-time sweetheart, Ella
Creel. "Jim" was Jim Wolfe, an apprentice in Orion's office, and
the hero of an adventure which long after Mark Twain wrote under the
title of, "Jim Wolfe and the Cats."
There is scarcely a hint of the future Mark Twain in this early
letter. It is the letter of a boy of seventeen who is beginning to
take himself rather seriously--who, finding himself for the first
time far from home and equal to his own responsibilities, is willing
to carry the responsibility of others. Henry, his brother, three
years younger, had been left in the printing-office with Orion, who,
after a long, profitless fight, is planning to remove from Hannibal.
The young traveler is concerned as to the family outlook, and will
furnish advice if invited. He feels the approach of prosperity, and
will take his mother on a long-coveted trip to her old home in the
spring. His evenings? Where should he spend them, with a free
library of four thousand volumes close by? It is distinctly a
youthful letter, a bit pretentious, and wanting in the spontaneity
and humor of a later time. It invites comment, now, chiefly because
it is the first surviving document in the long human story.
He was working in the printing-office of John A. Gray and Green, on
Cliff Street, and remained there through the summer. He must have
written more than once during this period, but the next existing
letter--also to Sister Pamela--was written in October. It is
perhaps a shade more natural in tone than the earlier example, and
there is a hint of Mark Twain in the first paragraph.
To Mrs. Moffett, in St. Louis:
NEW YORK . . . , Oct. Saturday '53.
MY DEAR SISTER,--I have not written to any of the family for some time,
from the fact, firstly, that I didn't know where they were, and secondly,
because I have been fooling myself with the idea that I was going to
leave New York every day for the last two weeks. I have taken a liking
to the abominable place, and every time I get ready to leave, I put it
off a day or so, from some unaccountable cause. It is as hard on my
conscience to leave New York, as it was easy to leave Hannibal. I think
I shall get off Tuesday, though.
Edwin Forrest has been playing, for the last sixteen days, at the
Broadway Theatre, but I never went to see him till last night. The play
was the "Gladiator." I did not like parts of it much, but other portions
were really splendid. In the latter part of the last act, where the
"Gladiator" (Forrest) dies at his brother's feet, (in all the fierce
pleasure of gratified revenge,) the man's whole soul seems absorbed in
the part he is playing; and it is really startling to see him. I am
sorry I did not see him play "Damon and Pythias" the former character
being his greatest. He appears in Philadelphia on Monday night.
I have not received a letter from home lately, but got a "'Journal'" the
other day, in which I see the office has been sold. I suppose Ma, Orion
and Henry are in St. Louis now. If Orion has no other project in his
head, he ought to take the contract for getting out some weekly paper, if
he cannot get a foremanship. Now, for such a paper as the "Presbyterian"
(containing about 60,000,--[Sixty thousand ems, type measurement.])
he could get $20 or $25 per week, and he and Henry could easily do the
work; nothing to do but set the type and make up the forms....
If my letters do not come often, you need not bother yourself about me;
for if you have a brother nearly eighteen years of age, who is not able
to take care of himself a few miles from home, such a brother is not
worth one's thoughts: and if I don't manage to take care of No. 1, be
assured you will never know it. I am not afraid, however; I shall ask
favors from no one, and endeavor to be (and shall be) as "independent as
a wood-sawyer's clerk."
I never saw such a place for military companies as New York. Go on the
street when you will, you are sure to meet a company in full uniform,
with all the usual appendages of drums, fifes, &c. I saw a large company
of soldiers of 1812 the other day, with a '76 veteran scattered here and
there in the ranks. And as I passed through one of the parks lately,
I came upon a company of boys on parade. Their uniforms were neat, and
their muskets about half the common size. Some of them were not more
than seven or eight years of age; but had evidently been well-drilled.
Passage to Albany (160 miles) on the finest steamers that ply' the
Hudson, is now 25 cents--cheap enough, but is generally cheaper than that
in the summer.
I want you to write as soon as I tell you where to direct your letter.
I would let you know now, if I knew myself. I may perhaps be here a week
longer; but I cannot tell. When you write tell me the whereabouts of the
family. My love to Mr. Moffett and Ella. Tell Ella I intend to write to
her soon, whether she wants me to nor not.
Truly your Brother,
SAML L. CLEMENS.
He was in Philadelphia when he wrote the nest letter that has come
down to us, and apparently satisfied with the change. It is a
letter to Orion Clemens, who had disposed of his paper, but
evidently was still in Hannibal. An extended description of a trip
to Fairmount Park is omitted because of its length, its chief
interest being the tendency it shows to descriptive writing--the
field in which he would make his first great fame. There is,
however, no hint of humor, and only a mild suggestion of the author
of the Innocents Abroad in this early attempt. The letter as here
given is otherwise complete, the omissions being indicated.
To Orion Clemens, in Hannibal:
PHILADELPHIA, PA. Oct. 26,1853.
MY DEAR BROTHER,--It was at least two weeks before I left New York, that
I received my last letter from home: and since then, not a word have I
heard from any of you. And now, since I think of it, it wasn't a letter,
either, but the last number of the "Daily Journal," saying that that
paper was sold, and I very naturally supposed from that, that the family
had disbanded, and taken up winter quarters in St. Louis. Therefore, I
have been writing to Pamela, till I've tired of it, and have received no
answer. I have been writing for the last two or three weeks, to send Ma
some money, but devil take me if I knew where she was, and so the money
has slipped out of my pocket somehow or other, but I have a dollar left,
and a good deal owing to me, which will be paid next Monday. I shall
enclose the dollar in this letter, and you can hand it to her. I know
it's a small amount, but then it will buy her a handkerchief, and at the
same time serve as a specimen of the kind of stuff we are paid with in
Philadelphia, for you see it's against the law, in Pennsylvania, to keep
or pass a bill of less denomination than $5. I have only seen two or
three bank bills since I have been in the State. On Monday the hands are
paid off in sparkling gold, fresh from the Mint; so your dreams are not
troubled with the fear of having doubtful money in your pocket.
I am subbing at the Inquirer office. One man has engaged me to work for
him every Sunday till the first of next April, (when I shall return home
to take Ma to Ky;) and another has engaged my services for the 24th of
next month; and if I want it, I can get subbing every night of the week.
I go to work at 7 o'clock in the evening, and work till 3 o'clock the
next morning. I can go to the theatre and stay till 12 o'clock and then
go to the office, and get work from that till 3 the next morning; when I
go to bed, and sleep till 11 o'clock, then get up and loaf the rest of
the day. The type is mostly agate and minion, with some bourgeois; and
when one gets a good agate take,--["Agate," "minion," etc., sizes of
type; "take," a piece of work. Type measurement is by ems, meaning the
width of the letter 'm'.]--he is sure to make money. I made $2.50 last
Sunday, and was laughed at by all the hands, the poorest of whom sets
11,000 on Sunday; and if I don't set 10,000, at least, next Sunday, I'll
give them leave to laugh as much as they want to. Out of the 22
compositors in this office, 12 at least, set 15,000 on Sunday.
Unlike New York, I like this Philadelphia amazingly, and the people in
it. There is only one thing that gets my "dander" up--and that is the
hands are always encouraging me: telling me--"it's no use to get
discouraged--no use to be down-hearted, for there is more work here than
you can do!" "Down-hearted," the devil! I have not had a particle of
such a feeling since I left Hannibal, more than four months ago. I fancy
they'll have to wait some time till they see me down-hearted or afraid of
starving while I have strength to work and am in a city of 400,000
inhabitants. When I was in Hannibal, before I had scarcely stepped out
of the town limits, nothing could have convinced me that I would starve
as soon as I got a little way from home....
The grave of Franklin is in Christ Church-yard, corner of Fifth and Arch
streets. They keep the gates locked, and one can only see the flat slab
that lies over his remains and that of his wife; but you cannot see the
inscription distinctly enough to read it. The inscription, I believe,
and | Franklin"
I counted 27 cannons (6 pounders) planted in the edge of the sidewalk in
Water St. the other day. They are driven into the ground, about a foot,
with the mouth end upwards. A ball is driven fast into the mouth of
each, to exclude the water; they look like so many posts. They were put
there during the war. I have also seen them planted in this manner,
round the old churches, in N. Y.....
There is one fine custom observed in Phila. A gentleman is always
expected to hand up a lady's money for her. Yesterday, I sat in the
front end of the 'bus, directly under the driver's box--a lady sat
opposite me. She handed me her money, which was right. But, Lord!
a St. Louis lady would think herself ruined, if she should be so familiar
with a stranger. In St. Louis a man will sit in the front end of the
stage, and see a lady stagger from the far end, to pay her fare. The
Phila. 'bus drivers cannot cheat. In the front of the stage is a thing
like an office clock, with figures from 0 to 40, marked on its face.
When the stage starts, the hand of the clock is turned toward the 0.
When you get in and pay your fare, the driver strikes a bell, and the
hand moves to the figure 1--that is, "one fare, and paid for," and there
is your receipt, as good as if you had it in your pocket. When a
passenger pays his fare and the driver does not strike the bell
immediately, he is greeted "Strike that bell! will you?"
I must close now. I intend visiting the Navy Yard, Mint, etc., before I
write again. You must write often. You see I have nothing to write
interesting to you, while you can write nothing that will not interest
me. Don't say my letters are not long enough. Tell Jim Wolfe to write.
Tell all the boys where I am, and to write. Jim Robinson, particularly.
I wrote to him from N. Y. Tell me all that is going on in H--l.
Truly your brother
Those were primitive times. Imagine a passenger in these easy-going days
calling to a driver or conductor to "Strike that bell!"
"H--l" is his abbreviation for Hannibal. He had first used it in a title
of a poem which a few years before, during one of Orion's absences, he
had published in the paper. "To Mary in Hannibal" was too long to set as
a display head in single column. The poem had no great merit, but under
the abbreviated title it could hardly fail to invite notice. It was one
of several things he did to liven up the circulation during a brief
period of his authority.
The doubtful money he mentions was the paper issued by private banks,
"wild cat," as it was called. He had been paid with it in New York,
and found it usually at a discount--sometimes even worthless. Wages and
money were both better in Philadelphia, but the fund for his mother's
trip to Kentucky apparently did not grow very rapidly.
The next letter, written a month later, is also to Orion Clemens, who had
now moved to Muscatine, Iowa, and established there a new paper with an
old title, 'The Journal'.
To Orion Clemens, in Muscatine, Iowa:
PHILADELPHIA, Nov. 28th, 1853.
MY DEAR BROTHER,--I received your letter today. I think Ma ought to
spend the winter in St. Louis. I don't believe in that climate--it's too
cold for her.
The printers' annual ball and supper came off the other night. The
proceeds amounted to about $1,000. The printers, as well as other
people, are endeavoring to raise money to erect a monument to Franklin,
but there are so many abominable foreigners here (and among printers,
too,) who hate everything American, that I am very certain as much money
for such a purpose could be raised in St. Louis, as in Philadelphia.
I was in Franklin's old office this morning--the "North American"
(formerly "Philadelphia Gazette") and there was at least one foreigner
for every American at work there.
How many subscribers has the Journal got? What does the job-work pay?
and what does the whole concern pay?.....
I will try to write for the paper occasionally, but I fear my letters
will be very uninteresting, for this incessant night-work dulls one's
From some cause, I cannot set type nearly so fast as when I was at home.
Sunday is a long day, and while others set 12 and 15,000, yesterday, I
only set 10,000. However, I will shake this laziness off, soon, I reckon
How do you like "free-soil?"--I would like amazingly to see a good old-
My love to all
Truly your brother
We may believe that it never occurred to the young printer, looking
up landmarks of Ben Franklin, that time would show points of
resemblance between the great Franklin's career and his own. Yet
these seem now rather striking. Like Franklin, he had been taken
out of school very young and put at the printer's trade; like
Franklin, he had worked in his brother's office, and had written for
the paper. Like him, too, he had left quietly for New York and
Philadelphia to work at the trade of printing, and in time Samuel
Clemens, like Benjamin Franklin, would become a world-figure, many-
sided, human, and of incredible popularity. The boy Sam Clemens may
have had such dreams, but we find no trace of them.
There is but one more letter of this early period. Young Clemens
spent some time in Washington, but if he wrote from there his
letters have disappeared. The last letter is from Philadelphia and
seems to reflect homesickness. The novelty of absence and travel
was wearing thin.
To Mrs. Moffett, in St. Louis:
PHILADELPHIA, Dec. 5, '53.
MY DEAR SISTER,--I have already written two letters within the last two
hours, and you will excuse me if this is not lengthy. If I had the
money, I would come to St. Louis now, while the river is open; but within
the last two or three weeks I have spent about thirty dollars for
clothing, so I suppose I shall remain where I am. I only want to return
to avoid night-work, which is injuring my eyes. I have received one or
two letters from home, but they are not written as they should be, and I
know no more about what is going on there than the man in the moon. One
only has to leave home to learn how to write an interesting letter to an
absent friend when he gets back. I suppose you board at Mrs. Hunter's
yet--and that, I think, is somewhere in Olive street above Fifth.
Philadelphia is one of the healthiest places in the Union. I wanted to
spend this winter in a warm climate, but it is too late now. I don't
like our present prospect for cold weather at all.
Truly your brother
But he did not return to the West for another half year. The
letters he wrote during that period have not survived. It was late
in the summer of 1854 when he finally started for St. Louis. He sat
up for three days and nights in a smoking-car to make the journey,
and arrived exhausted. The river packet was leaving in a few hours
for Muscatine, Iowa, where his mother and his two brothers were now
located. He paid his sister a brief visit, and caught the boat.
Worn-out, he dropped into his berth and slept the thirty-six hours
of the journey.
It was early when-he arrived--too early to arouse the family. In
the office of the little hotel where he waited for daylight he found
a small book. It contained portraits of the English rulers, with
the brief facts of their reigns. Young Clemens entertained himself
by learning this information by heart. He had a fine memory for
such things, and in an hour or two had the printed data perfectly
and permanently committed. This incidentally acquired knowledge
proved of immense value to him. It was his groundwork for all
LETTERS 1856-61. KEOKUK, AND THE RIVER. END OF PILOTING
There comes a period now of nearly four years, when Samuel Clemens
was either a poor correspondent or his letters have not been
preserved. Only two from this time have survived--happily of
intimate biographical importance.
Young Clemens had not remained in Muscatine. His brother had no
inducements to offer, and he presently returned to St. Louis, where
he worked as a compositor on the Evening News until the following
spring, rooming with a young man named Burrough, a journeyman chair-
maker with a taste for the English classics. Orion Clemens,
meantime, on a trip to Keokuk, had casually married there, and a
little later removed his office to that city. He did not move the
paper; perhaps it did not seem worth while, and in Keokuk he
confined himself to commercial printing. The Ben Franklin Book and
Job Office started with fair prospects. Henry Clemens and a boy
named Dick Hingham were the assistants, and somewhat later, when
brother Sam came up from St. Louis on a visit, an offer of five
dollars a week and board induced him to remain. Later, when it
became increasingly difficult to pay the five dollars, Orion took
his brother into partnership, which perhaps relieved the financial
stress, though the office methods would seem to have left something
to be desired. It is about at this point that the first of the two
letters mentioned was written. The writer addressed it to his
mother and sister--Jane Clemens having by this time taken up her
home with her daughter, Mrs. Moffett.
To Mrs. Clemens and Mrs. Moffett, in St. Louis:
KEOKUK, Iowa, June 10th, 1856.
MY DEAR MOTHER & SISTER,--I have nothing to write. Everything is going
on well. The Directory is coming on finely. I have to work on it
occasionally, which I don't like a particle I don't like to work at too
many things at once. They take Henry and Dick away from me too. Before
we commenced the Directory, I could tell before breakfast just how much
work could be done during the day, and manage accordingly--but now, they
throw all my plans into disorder by taking my hands away from their work.
I have nothing to do with the book--if I did I would have the two book
hands do more work than they do, or else I would drop it. It is not a
mere supposition that they do not work fast enough--I know it; for
yesterday the two book hands were at work all day, Henry and Dick all the
afternoon, on the advertisements, and they set up five pages and a half-
and I set up two pages and a quarter of the same matter after supper,
night before last, and I don't work fast on such things. They are either
excessively slow motioned or very lazy. I am not getting along well with
the job work. I can't work blindly--without system. I gave Dick a job
yesterday, which I calculated he would set in two hours and I could work
off in three, and therefore just finish it by supper time, but he was
transferred to the Directory, and the job, promised this morning, remains
untouched. Through all the great pressure of job work lately, I never
before failed in a promise of the kind.
Excuse brevity this is my 3rd letter to-night.
Samuel Clemens was never celebrated for his patience; we may imagine
that the disorder of the office tried his nerves. He seems, on the
whole, however, to have been rather happy in Keokuk. There were
plenty of young people there, and he was a favorite among them. But
he had grown dissatisfied, and when one day some weeks later there
fell into His hands an account of the riches of the newly explored
regions of the upper Amazon, he promptly decided to find his fortune
at the headwaters of the great South-American river. The second
letter reports this momentous decision. It was written to Henry
Clemens, who was temporarily absent-probably in Hannibal.
To Henry Clemens:
KEOKUK, August 5th, '56.
MY DEAR BROTHER,--..... Ward and I held a long consultation, Sunday
morning, and the result was that we two have determined to start to
Brazil, if possible, in six weeks from now, in order to look carefully
into matters there and report to Dr. Martin in time for him to follow on
the first of March. We propose going via New York. Now, between you and
I and the fence you must say nothing about this to Orion, for he thinks
that Ward is to go clear through alone, and that I am to stop at New York
or New Orleans until he reports. But that don't suit me. My confidence
in human nature does not extend quite that far. I won't depend upon
Ward's judgment, or anybody's else--I want to see with my own eyes, and
form my own opinion. But you know what Orion is. When he gets a notion
into his head, and more especially if it is an erroneous one, the Devil
can't get it out again. So I know better than to combat his arguments
long, but apparently yielded, inwardly determined to go clear through.
Ma knows my determination, but even she counsels me to keep it from
Orion. She says I can treat him as I did her when I started to St. Louis
and went to New York--I can start to New York and go to South America!
Although Orion talks grandly about furnishing me with fifty or a hundred
dollars in six weeks, I could not depend upon him for ten dollars, so I
have "feelers" out in several directions, and have already asked for a
hundred dollars from one source (keep it to yourself.) I will lay on my
oars for awhile, and see how the wind sets, when I may probably try to
get more. Mrs. Creel is a great friend of mine, and has some influence
with Ma and Orion, though I reckon they would not acknowledge it. I am
going up there tomorrow, to press her into my service. I shall take care
that Ma and Orion are plentifully supplied with South American books.
They have Herndon's Report now. Ward and the Dr. and myself will hold a
grand consultation tonight at the office. We have agreed that no more
shall be admitted into our company.
I believe the Guards went down to Quincy today to escort our first
Readers familiar with the life of Mark Twain know that none of the
would-be adventurers found their way to the Amazon: His two
associates gave up the plan, probably for lack of means. Young
Clemens himself found a fifty-dollar bill one bleak November day
blowing along the streets of Keokuk, and after duly advertising his
find without result, set out for the Amazon, by way of Cincinnati
and New Orleans.
"I advertised the find and left for the Amazon the same day," he
once declared, a statement which we may take with a literary
He remained in Cincinnati that winter (1856-57) working at his
trade. No letters have been preserved from that time, except two
that were sent to a Keokuk weekly, the Saturday Post, and as these
were written for publication, and are rather a poor attempt at
burlesque humor--their chief feature being a pretended illiteracy--
they would seem to bear no relation to this collection. He roomed
that winter with a rugged, self-educated Scotchman--a mechanic, but
a man of books and philosophies, who left an impress on Mark Twain's
In April he took up once more the journey toward South America, but
presently forgot the Amazon altogether in the new career that opened
to him. All through his boyhood and youth Samuel Clemens had wanted
to be a pilot. Now came the long-deferred opportunity. On the
little Cincinnati steamer, the Paul Jones, there was a pilot named
Horace Bixby. Young Clemens idling in the pilot-house was one
morning seized with the old ambition, and laid siege to Bixby to
teach him the river. The terms finally agreed upon specified a fee
to Bixby of five hundred dollars, one hundred down, the balance when
the pupil had completed the course and was earning money. But all
this has been told in full elsewhere, and is only summarized here
because the letters fail to complete the story.
Bixby soon made some trips up the Missouri River, and in his absence
turned his apprentice, or "cub," over to other pilots, such being
the river custom. Young Clemens, in love with the life, and a
favorite with his superiors, had a happy time until he came under a
pilot named Brown. Brown was illiterate and tyrannical, and from
the beginning of their association pilot and apprentice disliked
each other cordially.
It is at this point that the letters begin once more--the first
having been written when young Clemens, now twenty-two years old,
had been on the river nearly a year. Life with Brown, of course,
was not all sorrow, and in this letter we find some of the fierce
joy of adventure which in those days Samuel Clemens loved.
To Onion Clemens and Wife, in Keokuk, Iowa:
SAINT LOUIS, March 9th, 1858.
DEAR BROTHER AND SISTER,--I must take advantage of the opportunity now
presented to write you, but I shall necessarily be dull, as I feel
uncommonly stupid. We have had a hard trip this time. Left Saint Louis
three weeks ago on the Pennsylvania. The weather was very cold, and the
ice running densely. We got 15 miles below town, landed the boat, and
then one pilot. Second Mate and four deck hands took the sounding boat
and shoved out in the ice to hunt the channel. They failed to find it,
and the ice drifted them ashore. The pilot left the men with the boat
and walked back to us, a mile and a half. Then the other pilot and
myself, with a larger crew of men started out and met with the same fate.
We drifted ashore just below the other boat. Then the fun commenced. We
made fast a line 20 fathoms long, to the bow of the yawl, and put the men
(both crews) to it like horses, on the shore. Brown, the pilot, stood in
the bow, with an oar, to keep her head out, and I took the tiller. We
would start the men, and all would go well till the yawl would bring up
on a heavy cake of ice, and then the men would drop like so many ten-
pins, while Brown assumed the horizontal in the bottom of the boat.
After an hour's hard work we got back, with ice half an inch thick on the
oars. Sent back and warped up the other yawl, and then George (the first
mentioned pilot,) and myself, took a double crew of fresh men and tried
it again. This time we found the channel in less than half an hour,
and landed on an island till the Pennsylvania came along and took us off.
The next day was colder still. I was out in the yawl twice, and then we
got through, but the infernal steamboat came near running over us. We
went ten miles further, landed, and George and I cleared out again--found
the channel first trial, but got caught in the gorge and drifted
helplessly down the river. The Ocean Spray came along and started into
the ice after us, but although she didn't succeed in her kind intention
of taking us aboard, her waves washed us out, and that was all we wanted.
We landed on an island, built a big fire and waited for the boat. She
started, and ran aground! It commenced raining and sleeting, and a very
interesting time we had on that barren sandbar for the next four hours,
when the boat got off and took us aboard. The next day was terribly
cold. We sounded Hat Island, warped up around a bar and sounded again--
but in order to understand our situation you will have to read Dr. Kane.
It would have been impossible to get back to the boat. But the Maria
Denning was aground at the head of the island--they hailed us--we ran
alongside and they hoisted us in and thawed us out. We had then been out
in the yawl from 4 o'clock in the morning till half past 9 without being
near a fire. There was a thick coating of ice over men, yawl, ropes and
everything else, and we looked like rock-candy statuary. We got to Saint
Louis this morning, after an absence of 3 weeks--that boat generally
makes the trip in 2.
Henry was doing little or nothing here, and I sent him to our clerk to
work his way for a trip, by measuring wood piles, counting coal boxes,
and other clerkly duties, which he performed satisfactorily. He may go
down with us again, for I expect he likes our bill of fare better than
that of his boarding house.
I got your letter at Memphis as I went down. That is the best place to
write me at. The post office here is always out of my route, somehow or
other. Remember the direction: "S.L.C., Steamer Pennsylvania Care Duval
& Algeo, Wharfboat, Memphis." I cannot correspond with a paper, because
when one is learning the river, he is not allowed to do or think about
I am glad to see you in such high spirits about the land, and I hope you
will remain so, if you never get richer. I seldom venture to think about
our landed wealth, for "hope deferred maketh the heart sick."
I did intend to answer your letter, but I am too lazy and too sleepy now.
We have had a rough time during the last 24 hours working through the ice
between Cairo and Saint Louis, and I have had but little rest.
I got here too late to see the funeral of the 10 victims by the burning
of the Pacific hotel in 7th street. Ma says there were 10 hearses, with
the fire companies (their engines in mourning--firemen in uniform,) the
various benevolent societies in uniform and mourning, and a multitude of
citizens and strangers, forming, altogether, a procession of 30,000
persons! One steam fire engine was drawn by four white horses, with
crape festoons on their heads.
Well I am--just--about--asleep--
Among other things, we gather from this letter that Orion Clemens
had faith in his brother as a newspaper correspondent, though the
two contributions from Cincinnati, already mentioned, were not
promising. Furthermore, we get an intimation of Orion's unfailing
confidence in the future of the "land"--that is to say, the great
tract of land in Eastern Tennessee which, in an earlier day, his
father had bought as a heritage for his children. It is the same
Tennessee land that had "millions in it" for Colonel Sellers--the
land that would become, as Orion Clemens long afterward phrased it,
"the worry of three generations."
The Doctor Kane of this letter is, of course, Dr. Elisha Kent Kane,
the American Arctic explorer. Any book of exploration always
appealed to Mark Twain, and in those days Kane was a favorite.
The paragraph concerning Henry, and his employment on the
Pennsylvania, begins the story of a tragedy. The story has been
fully told elsewhere,--[Mark Twain: A Biography, by same author.]--
and need only be sketched briefly here. Henry, a gentle, faithful
boy, shared with his brother the enmity of the pilot Brown. Some
two months following the date of the foregoing letter, on a down
trip of the Pennsylvania, an unprovoked attack made by Brown upon
the boy brought his brother Sam to the rescue. Brown received a
good pummeling at the hands of the future humorist, who, though
upheld by the captain, decided to quit the Pennsylvania at New
Orleans and to come up the river by another boat. The Brown episode
has no special bearing on the main tragedy, though now in retrospect
it seems closely related to it. Samuel Clemens, coming up the river
on the A. T. Lacey, two days behind the Pennsylvania, heard a voice
shout as they approached the Greenville, Mississippi, landing:
"The Pennsylvania is blown up just below Memphis, at Ship Island!
One hundred and fifty lives lost!"
It was a true report. At six o'clock of a warm, mid-June morning,
while loading wood, sixty miles below Memphis, the Pennsylvania's
boilers had exploded with fearful results. Henry Clemens was among
the injured. He was still alive when his brother reached Memphis on
the Lacey, but died a few days later. Samuel Clemens had idolized
the boy, and regarded himself responsible for his death. The letter
that follows shows that he was overwrought by the scenes about him
and the strain of watching, yet the anguish of it is none the less
To Mrs. Onion Clemens:
MEMPHIS, TENN., Friday, June 18th, 1858.
DEAR SISTER MOLLIE,--Long before this reaches you, my poor Henry my
darling, my pride, my glory, my all, will have finished his blameless
career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter darkness.
(O, God! this is hard to bear.) Hardened, hopeless,--aye, lost--lost--
lost and ruined sinner as I am--I, even I, have humbled myself to the
ground and prayed as never man prayed before, that the great God might
let this cup pass from me--that he would strike me to the earth, but
spare my brother--that he would pour out the fulness of his just wrath
upon my wicked head, but have mercy, mercy, mercy upon that unoffending
boy. The horrors of three days have swept over me--they have blasted my
youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie, there are gray
hairs in my head tonight. For forty-eight hours I labored at the bedside
of my poor burned and bruised, but uncomplaining brother, and then the
star of my hope went out and left me in the gloom of despair. Men take
me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me "lucky" because I was not
on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! May God forgive them, for they
know not what they say.
Mollie you do not understand why I was not on that boat--I will tell you.
I left Saint Louis on her, but on the way down, Mr. Brown, the pilot that
was killed by the explosion (poor fellow,) quarreled with Henry without
cause, while I was steering. Henry started out of the pilot-house--Brown
jumped up and collared him--turned him half way around and struck him in
the face!--and him nearly six feet high--struck my little brother. I was
wild from that moment. I left the boat to steer herself, and avenged the
insult--and the Captain said I was right--that he would discharge Brown
in N. Orleans if he could get another pilot, and would do it in St.
Louis, anyhow. Of course both of us could not return to St. Louis on the
same boat--no pilot could be found, and the Captain sent me to the A. T.
Lacey, with orders to her Captain to bring me to Saint Louis. Had
another pilot been found, poor Brown would have been the "lucky" man.
I was on the Pennsylvania five minutes before she left N. Orleans, and I
must tell you the truth, Mollie--three hundred human beings perished by
that fearful disaster. Henry was asleep--was blown up--then fell back on
the hot boilers, and I suppose that rubbish fell on him, for he is
injured internally. He got into the water and swam to shore, and got
into the flatboat with the other survivors.--[Henry had returned once to
the Pennsylvania to render assistance to the passengers. Later he had
somehow made his way to the flatboat.]--He had nothing on but his wet
shirt, and he lay there burning up with a southern sun and freezing in
the wind till the Kate Frisbee carne along. His wounds were not dressed
till he got to Memphis, 15 hours after the explosion. He was senseless
and motionless for 12 hours after that. But may God bless Memphis, the
noblest city on the face of the earth. She has done her duty by these
poor afflicted creatures--especially Henry, for he has had five--aye,
ten, fifteen, twenty times the care and attention that any one else has
had. Dr. Peyton, the best physician in Memphis (he is exactly like the
portraits of Webster) sat by him for 36 hours. There are 32 scalded men
in that room, and you would know Dr. Peyton better than I can describe
him, if you could follow him around and hear each man murmur as he
passes, "May the God of Heaven bless you, Doctor!" The ladies have done
well, too. Our second Mate, a handsome, noble hearted young fellow, will
die. Yesterday a beautiful girl of 15 stooped timidly down by his side
and handed him a pretty bouquet. The poor suffering boy's eyes kindled,
his lips quivered out a gentle "God bless you, Miss," and he burst into
tears. He made them write her name on a card for him, that he might not
Pray for me, Mollie, and pray for my poor sinless brother.
Your unfortunate Brother,
SAML. L. CLEMENS.
P. S. I got here two days after Henry.
It is said that Mark Twain never really recovered from the tragedy
of his brother's death--that it was responsible for the serious,
pathetic look that the face of the world's greatest laugh-maker
always wore in repose.
He went back to the river, and in September of the same year, after
an apprenticeship of less than eighteen months, received his license
as a St. Louis and New Orleans pilot, and was accepted by his old
chief, Bixby, as full partner on an important boat. In Life on the
Mississippi Mark Twain makes the period of his study from two to two
and a half years, but this is merely an attempt to magnify his
dullness. He was, in fact, an apt pupil and a pilot of very high
Clemens was now suddenly lifted to a position of importance. The
Mississippi River pilot of those days was a person of distinction,
earning a salary then regarded as princely. Certainly two hundred
and fifty dollars a month was large for a boy of twenty-three. At
once, of course, he became the head of the Clemens family. His
brother Orion was ten years older, but he had not the gift of
success. By common consent the younger brother assumed permanently
the position of family counselor and financier. We expect him to
feel the importance of his new position, and he is too human to
disappoint us. Incidentally, we notice an improvement in his
English. He no longer writes "between you and I"
Fragment of a letter to Orion Clemens. Written at St.
Louis in 1859:
.....I am not talking nonsense, now--I am in earnest, I want you to keep
your troubles and your plans out of the reach of meddlers, until the
latter are consummated, so that in case you fail, no one will know it but
Above all things (between you and me) never tell Ma any of your troubles;
she never slept a wink the night your last letter came, and she looks
distressed yet. Write only cheerful news to her. You know that she will
not be satisfied so long as she thinks anything is going on that she is
ignorant of--and she makes a little fuss about it when her suspicions are
awakened; but that makes no difference--. I know that it is better that
she be kept in the dark concerning all things of an unpleasant nature.
She upbraids me occasionally for giving her only the bright side of my
affairs (but unfortunately for her she has to put up with it, for I know
that troubles that I curse awhile and forget, would disturb her slumbers
for some time.) (Parenthesis No. 2--Possibly because she is deprived of
the soothing consolation of swearing.) Tell her the good news and me the
Putting all things together, I begin to think I am rather lucky than
otherwise--a notion which I was slow to take up. The other night I was
about to round to for a storm--but concluded that I could find a smoother
bank somewhere. I landed 5 miles below. The storm came--passed away and
did not injure us. Coming up, day before yesterday, I looked at the spot
I first chose, and half the trees on the bank were torn to shreds. We
couldn't have lived 5 minutes in such a tornado. And I am also lucky in
having a berth, while all the young pilots are idle. This is the
luckiest circumstance that ever befell me. Not on account of the wages--
for that is a secondary consideration--but from the fact that the City of
Memphis is the largest boat in the trade and the hardest to pilot, and
consequently I can get a reputation on her, which is a thing I never
could accomplish on a transient boat. I can "bank" in the neighborhood
of $100 a month on her, and that will satisfy me for the present
(principally because the other youngsters are sucking their fingers.)
Bless me! what a pleasure there is in revenge! and what vast respect
Prosperity commands! Why, six months ago, I could enter the "Rooms," and
receive only a customary fraternal greeting--but now they say, "Why, how
are you, old fellow--when did you get in?"
And the young pilots who used to tell me, patronizingly, that I could
never learn the river cannot keep from showing a little of their chagrin
at seeing me so far ahead of them. Permit me to "blow my horn," for I
derive a living pleasure from these things, and I must confess that when
I go to pay my dues, I rather like to let the d---d rascals get a glimpse
of a hundred dollar bill peeping out from amongst notes of smaller
dimensions, whose face I do not exhibit! You will despise this egotism,
but I tell you there is a "stern joy" in it.....
Pilots did not remain long on one boat, as a rule; just why it is not so
easy to understand. Perhaps they liked the experience of change; perhaps
both captain and pilot liked the pursuit of the ideal. In the light-
hearted letter that follows--written to a friend of the family, formerly
of Hannibal--we get something of the uncertainty of the pilot's
To Mrs. Elizabeth W. Smith, in Jackson,
Cape Girardeau County, Mo.:
ST. Louis, Oct. 31 [probably 1859].
DEAR AUNT BETSEY,--Ma has not written you, because she did not know when
I would get started down the river again.....
You see, Aunt Betsey, I made but one trip on the packet after you left,
and then concluded to remain at home awhile. I have just discovered this
morning that I am to go to New Orleans on the "Col. Chambers"--fine,
light-draught, swift-running passenger steamer--all modern accommodations
and improvements--through with dispatch--for freight or passage apply on
board, or to--but--I have forgotten the agent's name--however, it makes
no difference--and as I was saying, or had intended to say, Aunt Betsey,
probably, if you are ready to come up, you had better take the "Ben
Lewis," the best boat in the packet line. She will be at Cape Girardeau
at noon on Saturday (day after tomorrow,) and will reach here at
breakfast time, Sunday. If Mr. Hamilton is chief clerk,--very well,
I am slightly acquainted with him. And if Messrs. Carter Gray and Dean
Somebody (I have forgotten his other name,) are in the pilot-house--very
well again-I am acquainted with them. Just tell Mr. Gray, Aunt Betsey--
that I wish him to place himself at your command.
All the family are well--except myself--I am in a bad way again--disease,
Love, in its most malignant form. Hopes are entertained of my recovery,
however. At the dinner table--excellent symptom--I am still as "terrible
as an army with banners."
Aunt Betsey--the wickedness of this world--but I haven't time to moralize
As we do not hear of this "attack" again, the recovery was probably
prompt. His letters are not frequent enough for us to keep track of
his boats, but we know that he was associated with Bixby from time
to time, and now and again with one of the Bowen boys, his old
Hannibal schoolmates. He was reveling in the river life, the ease
and distinction and romance of it. No other life would ever suit
him as well. He was at the age to enjoy just what it brought him
--at the airy, golden, overweening age of youth.
To Orion Clemens, in Keokuk, Iowa:
ST. LOUIS, Mch. 1860.
MY DEAR BRO.,--Your last has just come to hand. It reminds me strongly
of Tom Hood's letters to his family, (which I have been reading lately).
But yours only remind me of his, for although there is a striking
likeness, your humour is much finer than his, and far better expressed.
Tom Hood's wit, (in his letters) has a savor of labor about it which is
very disagreeable. Your letter is good. That portion of it wherein the
old sow figures is the very best thing I have seen lately. Its quiet
style resembles Goldsmith's "Citizen of the World," and "Don Quixote,"--
which are my beau ideals of fine writing.
You have paid the preacher! Well, that is good, also. What a man wants
with religion in these breadless times, surpasses my comprehension.
Pamela and I have just returned from a visit to the most wonderfully
beautiful painting which this city has ever seen--Church's "Heart of the
Andes"--which represents a lovely valley with its rich vegetation in all
the bloom and glory of a tropical summer--dotted with birds and flowers
of all colors and shades of color, and sunny slopes, and shady corners,
and twilight groves, and cool cascades--all grandly set off with a
majestic mountain in the background with its gleaming summit clothed in
everlasting ice and snow! I have seen it several times, but it is always
a new picture--totally new--you seem to see nothing the second time which
you saw the first. We took the opera glass, and examined its beauties
minutely, for the naked eye cannot discern the little wayside flowers,
and soft shadows and patches of sunshine, and half-hidden bunches of
grass and jets of water which form some of its most enchanting features.
There is no slurring of perspective effect about it--the most distant--
the minutest object in it has a marked and distinct personality--so that
you may count the very leaves on the trees. When you first see the tame,
ordinary-looking picture, your first impulse is to turn your back upon
it, and say "Humbug"--but your third visit will find your brain gasping
and straining with futile efforts to take all the wonder in--and
appreciate it in its fulness--and understand how such a miracle could
have been conceived and executed by human brain and human hands. You
will never get tired of looking at the picture, but your reflections--
your efforts to grasp an intelligible Something--you hardly know what
--will grow so painful that you will have to go away from the thing,
in order to obtain relief. You may find relief, but you cannot banish
the picture--It remains with you still. It is in my mind now--and the
smallest feature could not be removed without my detecting it. So much
for the "Heart of the Andes."
Ma was delighted with her trip, but she was disgusted with the girls for
allowing me to embrace and kiss them--and she was horrified at the
Schottische as performed by Miss Castle and myself. She was perfectly
willing for me to dance until 12 o'clock at the imminent peril of my
going to sleep on the after watch--but then she would top off with a very
inconsistent sermon on dancing in general; ending with a terrific
broadside aimed at that heresy of heresies, the Schottische.
I took Ma and the girls in a carriage, round that portion of New Orleans
where the finest gardens and residences are to be seen, and although it
was a blazing hot dusty day, they seemed hugely delighted. To use an
expression which is commonly ignored in polite society, they were "hell-
bent" on stealing some of the luscious-looking oranges from branches
which overhung the fences, but I restrained them. They were not aware
before that shrubbery could be made to take any queer shape which a
skilful gardener might choose to twist it into, so they found not only
beauty but novelty in their visit. We went out to Lake Pontchartrain in
We have not before heard of Miss Castle, who appears to have been
one of the girls who accompanied Jane Clemens on the trip which her
son gave her to New Orleans, but we may guess that the other was his
cousin and good comrade, Ella Creel. One wishes that he might have
left us a more extended account of that long-ago river journey, a
fuller glimpse of a golden age that has vanished as completely as
the days of Washington.
We may smile at the natural youthful desire to air his reading, and
his art appreciation, and we may find his opinions not without
interest. We may even commend them--in part. Perhaps we no longer
count the leaves on Church's trees, but Goldsmith and Cervantes
still deserve the place assigned them.
He does not tell us what boat he was on at this time, but later in
the year he was with Bixby again, on the Alonzo Child. We get a bit
of the pilot in port in his next.
To Orion Clemens, in Keokuk, Iowa:
"ALONZO CHILD," N. ORLEANS, Sep. 28th 1860.
DEAR BROTHER,--I just received yours and Mollies letter yesterday--they
had been here two weeks--forwarded from St. Louis. We got here
yesterday--will leave at noon to-day. Of course I have had no time, in
24 hours, to do anything. Therefore I'll answer after we are under way
again. Yesterday, I had many things to do, but Bixby and I got with the
pilots of two other boats and went off dissipating on a ten dollar dinner
at a French restaurant breathe it not unto Ma!--where we ate sheep-head,
fish with mushrooms, shrimps and oysters--birds--coffee with brandy burnt
in it, &c &c,-ate, drank and smoked, from 2 p.m. until 5 o'clock, and
then--then the day was too far gone to do any thing.
Please find enclosed and acknowledge receipt of--$20.00
SAM L. CLEMENS
It should be said, perhaps, that when he became pilot Jane Clemens
had released her son from his pledge in the matter of cards and
liquor. This license did not upset him, however. He cared very
little for either of these dissipations. His one great indulgence
was tobacco, a matter upon which he was presently to receive some
grave counsel. He reports it in his next letter, a sufficiently
interesting document. The clairvoyant of this visit was Madame
Caprell, famous in her day. Clemens had been urged to consult her,
and one idle afternoon concluded to make the experiment. The letter
reporting the matter to his brother is fragmentary, and is the last
remaining to us of the piloting period.
Fragment of a letter to Orion Clemens, in Keokuk, Iowa:
NEW ORLEANS February 6, 1862.
.....She's a very pleasant little lady--rather pretty--about 28,--say
5 feet 2 and one quarter--would weigh 116--has black eyes and hair--is
polite and intelligent--used good language, and talks much faster than I
She invited me into the little back parlor, closed the door; and we were
alone. We sat down facing each other. Then she asked my age. Then she
put her hands before her eyes a moment, and commenced talking as if she
had a good deal to say and not much time to say it in. Something after
MADAME. Yours is a watery planet; you gain your livelihood on the water;
but you should have been a lawyer--there is where your talents lie: you
might have distinguished yourself as an orator, or as an editor; you have
written a great deal; you write well--but you are rather out of practice;
no matter--you will be in practice some day; you have a superb
constitution, and as excellent health as any man in the world; you have
great powers of endurance; in your profession your strength holds out
against the longest sieges, without flagging; still, the upper part of
your lungs, the top of them is slightly affected--you must take care of
yourself; you do not drink, but you use entirely too much tobacco; and
you must stop it; mind, not moderate, but stop the use of it totally;
then I can almost promise you 86 when you will surely die; otherwise look
out for 28, 31, 34, 47, and 65; be careful--for you are not of a long-
lived race, that is on your father's side; you are the only healthy
member of your family, and the only one in it who has anything like the
certainty of attaining to a great age--so, stop using tobacco, and be
careful of yourself..... In some respects you take after your father,
but you are much more like your mother, who belongs to the long-lived,
energetic side of the house.... You never brought all your energies to
bear upon any subject but what you accomplished it--for instance, you are
S. L. C. Which proves nothing.
MADAME. Don't interrupt. When you sought your present occupation you
found a thousand obstacles in the way--obstacles unknown--not even
suspected by any save you and me, since you keep such matters to
yourself--but you fought your way, and hid the long struggle under a mask
of cheerfulness, which saved your friends anxiety on your account. To do
all this requires all the qualities I have named.
S. L. C. You flatter well, Madame.
MADAME. Don't interrupt: Up to within a short time you had always lived
from hand to mouth-now you are in easy circumstances--for which you need
give credit to no one but yourself. The turning point in your life
occurred in 1840-7-8.
S. L. C. Which was?
MADAME. A death perhaps, and this threw you upon the world and made you
what you are; it was always intended that you should make yourself;
therefore, it was well that this calamity occurred as early as it did.
You will never die of water, although your career upon it in the future
seems well sprinkled with misfortune. You will continue upon the water
for some time yet; you will not retire finally until ten years from now
.... What is your brother's age? 35--and a lawyer? and in pursuit of an
office? Well, he stands a better chance than the other two, and he may
get it; he is too visionary--is always flying off on a new hobby; this
will never do--tell him I said so. He is a good lawyer--a, very good
lawyer--and a fine speaker--is very popular and much respected, and makes
many friends; but although he retains their friendship, he loses their
confidence by displaying his instability of character..... The land he
has now will be very valuable after a while--
S. L. C. Say a 50 years hence, or thereabouts. Madame--
MADAME. No--less time-but never mind the land, that is a secondary
consideration--let him drop that for the present, and devote himself to
his business and politics with all his might, for he must hold offices
under the Government.....
After a while you will possess a good deal of property--retire at the end
of ten years--after which your pursuits will be literary--try the law--
you will certainly succeed. I am done now. If you have any questions to
ask--ask them freely--and if it be in my power, I will answer without
I asked a few questions of minor importance--paid her $2--and left, under
the decided impression that going to the fortune teller's was just as
good as going to the opera, and the cost scarcely a trifle more--ergo,
I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when other
amusements fail. Now isn't she the devil? That is to say, isn't she a
right smart little woman?
When you want money, let Ma know, and she will send it. She and Pamela
are always fussing about change, so I sent them a hundred and twenty
quarters yesterday--fiddler's change enough to last till I get back, I
It is not so difficult to credit Madame Caprell with clairvoyant
powers when one has read the letters of Samuel Clemens up to this
point. If we may judge by those that have survived, her prophecy of
literary distinction for him was hardly warranted by anything she
could have known of his past performance. These letters of his
youth have a value to-day only because they were written by the man
who later was to become Mark Twain. The squibs and skits which he
sometimes contributed to the New Orleans papers were bright,
perhaps, and pleasing to his pilot associates, but they were without
literary value. He was twenty-five years old. More than one author
has achieved reputation at that age. Mark Twain was of slower
growth; at that age he had not even developed a definite literary
ambition: Whatever the basis of Madame Caprell's prophecy, we must
admit that she was a good guesser on several matters, "a right smart
little woman," as Clemens himself phrased it.
She overlooked one item, however: the proximity of the Civil War.
Perhaps it was too close at hand for second sight. A little more
than two months after the Caprell letter was written Fort Sumter was
fired upon. Mask Twain had made his last trip as a pilot up the
river to St. Louis--the nation was plunged into a four years'
There are no letters of this immediate period. Young Clemens went
to Hannibal, and enlisting in a private company, composed mainly of
old schoolmates, went soldiering for two rainy, inglorious weeks,
by the end of which he had had enough of war, and furthermore had
discovered that he was more of a Union abolitionist than a slave-
holding secessionist, as he had at first supposed. Convictions were
likely to be rather infirm during those early days of the war, and
subject to change without notice. Especially was this so in a
LETTERS 1861-62. ON THE FRONTIER. MINING ADVENTURES.
Clemens went from the battle-front to Keokuk, where Orion was
preparing to accept the appointment prophesied by Madame Caprell.
Orion was a stanch Unionist, and a member of Lincoln's Cabinet had
offered him the secretaryship of the new Territory of Nevada. Orion
had accepted, and only needed funds to carry him to his destination.
His pilot brother had the funds, and upon being appointed "private"
secretary, agreed to pay both passages on the overland stage, which
would bear them across the great plains from St. Jo to Carson City.
Mark Twain, in Roughing It, has described that glorious journey and
the frontier life that followed it. His letters form a supplement
of realism to a tale that is more or less fictitious, though
marvelously true in color and background. The first bears no date,
but it was written not long after their arrival, August 14, 1861.
It is not complete, but there is enough of it to give us a very fair
picture of Carson City, "a wooden town; its population two thousand
Part of a letter to Mrs. Jane Clemens, in St. Louis:
(Date not given, but Sept, or Oct., 1861.)
MY DEAR MOTHER,--I hope you will all come out here someday. But I shan't
consent to invite you, until we can receive you in style. But I guess we
shall be able to do that, one of these days. I intend that Pamela shall
live on Lake Bigler until she can knock a bull down with her fist--say,
about three months.
"Tell everything as it is--no better, and no worse."
Well, "Gold Hill" sells at $5,000 per foot, cash down; "Wild cat" isn't
worth ten cents. The country is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper,
lead, coal, iron, quick silver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris,
(gypsum,) thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers,
Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes
(pronounced Ki-yo-ties,) poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits.
I overheard a gentleman say, the other day, that it was "the d---dest
country under the sun."--and that comprehensive conception I fully
subscribe to. It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers
grow here, and no green thing gladdens the eye. The birds that fly over
the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the raven
tarry with us. Our city lies in the midst of a desert of the purest--
most unadulterated, and compromising sand--in which infernal soil nothing
but that fag-end of vegetable creation, "sage-brush," ventures to grow.
If you will take a Lilliputian cedar tree for a model, and build a dozen
imitations of it with the stiffest article of telegraph wire--set them
one foot apart and then try to walk through them, you'll understand
(provided the floor is covered 12 inches deep with sand,) what it is to
wander through a sage-brush desert. When crushed, sage brush emits an
odor which isn't exactly magnolia and equally isn't exactly polecat but
is a sort of compromise between the two. It looks a good deal like
grease-wood, and is the ugliest plant that was ever conceived of. It is
gray in color. On the plains, sage-brush and grease-wood grow about
twice as large as the common geranium--and in my opinion they are a very
good substitute for that useless vegetable. Grease-wood is a perfect-
most perfect imitation in miniature of a live oak tree-barring the color
of it. As to the other fruits and flowers of the country, there ain't
any, except "Pulu" or "Tuler," or what ever they call it,--a species of
unpoetical willow that grows on the banks of the Carson--a RIVER, 20
yards wide, knee deep, and so villainously rapid and crooked, that it
looks like it had wandered into the country without intending it, and had
run about in a bewildered way and got lost, in its hurry to get out again
before some thirsty man came along and drank it up. I said we are
situated in a flat, sandy desert--true. And surrounded on all sides by
such prodigious mountains, that when you gaze at them awhile,--and begin
to conceive of their grandeur--and next to feel their vastness expanding
your soul--and ultimately find yourself growing and swelling and
spreading into a giant--I say when this point is reached, you look
disdainfully down upon the insignificant village of Carson, and in that
instant you are seized with a burning desire to stretch forth your hand,
put the city in your pocket, and walk off with it.
As to churches, I believe they have got a Catholic one here, but like
that one the New York fireman spoke of, I believe "they don't run her
now:" Now, although we are surrounded by sand, the greatest part of the
town is built upon what was once a very pretty grassy spot; and the
streams of pure water that used to poke about it in rural sloth and
solitude, now pass through on dusty streets and gladden the hearts of men
by reminding them that there is at least something here that hath its
prototype among the homes they left behind them. And up "King's Canon,"
(please pronounce canyon, after the manner of the natives,) there are
"ranches," or farms, where they say hay grows, and grass, and beets and
onions, and turnips, and other "truck" which is suitable for cows--yes,
and even Irish potatoes; also, cabbage, peas and beans.
The houses are mostly frame, unplastered, but "papered" inside with
flour-sacks sewed together, and the handsomer the "brand" upon the sacks
is, the neater the house looks. Occasionally, you stumble on a stone
house. On account of the dryness of the country, the shingles on the
houses warp till they look like short joints of stove pipe split
In this letter is something of the "wild freedom of the West," which
later would contribute to his fame. The spirit of the frontier--of
Mark Twain--was beginning to stir him.
There had been no secretary work for him to do, and no provision for
payment. He found his profit in studying human nature and in
prospecting native resources. He was not interested in mining not
yet. With a boy named John Kinney he made an excursion to Lake
Bigler--now Tahoe--and located a timber claim, really of great
value. They were supposed to build a fence around it, but they were
too full of the enjoyment of camp-life to complete it. They put in
most of their time wandering through the stately forest or drifting
over the transparent lake in a boat left there by lumbermen. They
built themselves a brush house, but they did not sleep in it. In
'Roughing It' he writes, "It never occurred to us, for one thing;
and, besides, it was built to hold the ground, and that was enough.
We did not wish to strain it."
They were having a glorious time, when their camp-fire got away from
them and burned up their claim. His next letter, of which the
beginning is missing, describes the fire.
Fragment of a letter to Mrs. Jane Clemens and
Mrs. Moffett, in St. Louis:
.....The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the standard-
bearers, as we called the tall dead trees, wrapped in fire, and waving
their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air. Then we could turn from
this scene to the Lake, and see every branch, and leaf, and cataract of
flame upon its bank perfectly reflected as in a gleaming, fiery mirror.
The mighty roaring of the conflagration, together with our solitary and
somewhat unsafe position (for there was no one within six miles of us,)
rendered the scene very impressive. Occasionally, one of us would remove
his pipe from his mouth and say, "Superb! magnificent! Beautiful! but-
by the Lord God Almighty, if we attempt to sleep in this little patch
tonight, we'll never live till morning! for if we don't burn up, we'll
certainly suffocate." But he was persuaded to sit up until we felt
pretty safe as far as the fire was concerned, and then we turned in, with
many misgivings. When we got up in the morning, we found that the fire
had burned small pieces of drift wood within six feet of our boat, and
had made its way to within 4 or 5 steps of us on the South side. We
looked like lava men, covered as we were with ashes, and begrimed with
smoke. We were very black in the face, but we soon washed ourselves
John D. Kinney, a Cincinnati boy, and a first-rate fellow, too, who came
out with judge Turner, was my comrade. We staid at the Lake four days--
I had plenty of fun, for John constantly reminded me of Sam Bowen when we
were on our campaign in Missouri. But first and foremost, for Annie's,
Mollies, and Pamela's comfort, be it known that I have never been guilty
of profane language since I have been in this Territory, and Kinney
hardly ever swears.--But sometimes human nature gets the better of him.
On the second day we started to go by land to the lower camp, a distance
of three miles, over the mountains, each carrying an axe. I don't think
we got lost exactly, but we wandered four hours over the steepest,
rockiest and most dangerous piece of country in the world. I couldn't
keep from laughing at Kinney's distress, so I kept behind, so that he
could not see me. After he would get over a dangerous place, with
infinite labor and constant apprehension, he would stop, lean on his axe,
and look around, then behind, then ahead, and then drop his head and
ruminate awhile.--Then he would draw a long sigh, and say: "Well--could
any Billygoat have scaled that place without breaking his --- ------ neck?"
And I would reply, "No,--I don't think he could." "No--you don't think
he could--" (mimicking me,) "Why don't you curse the infernal place?
You know you want to.--I do, and will curse the --- ------ thieving
country as long as I live." Then we would toil on in silence for awhile.
Finally I told him--"Well, John, what if we don't find our way out of
this today--we'll know all about the country when we do get out." "Oh
stuff--I know enough--and too much about the d---d villainous locality
already." Finally, we reached the camp. But as we brought no provisions
with us, the first subject that presented itself to us was, how to get
back. John swore he wouldn't walk back, so we rolled a drift log apiece
into the Lake, and set about making paddles, intending to straddle the
logs and paddle ourselves back home sometime or other. But the Lake
objected--got stormy, and we had to give it up. So we set out for the
only house on this side of the Lake--three miles from there, down the
shore. We found the way without any trouble, reached there before
sundown, played three games of cribbage, borrowed a dug-out and pulled
back six miles to the upper camp. As we had eaten nothing since sunrise,
we did not waste time in cooking our supper or in eating it, either.
After supper we got out our pipes--built a rousing camp fire in the open
air-established a faro bank (an institution of this country,) on our huge
flat granite dining table, and bet white beans till one o'clock, when
John went to bed. We were up before the sun the next morning, went out
on the Lake and caught a fine trout for breakfast. But unfortunately, I
spoilt part of the breakfast. We had coffee and tea boiling on the fire,
in coffee-pots and fearing they might not be strong enough, I added more
ground coffee, and more tea, but--you know mistakes will happen.--I put
the tea in the coffee-pot, and the coffee in the teapot--and if you
imagine that they were not villainous mixtures, just try the effect once.
And so Bella is to be married on the 1st of Oct. Well, I send her and
her husband my very best wishes, and--I may not be here--but wherever I
am on that night, we'll have a rousing camp-fire and a jollification in
honor of the event.
In a day or two we shall probably go to the Lake and build another cabin
and fence, and get everything into satisfactory trim before our trip to
Esmeralda about the first of November.
What has become of Sam Bowen? I would give my last shirt to have him out
here. I will make no promises, but I believe if John would give him a
thousand dollars and send him out here he would not regret it. He might
possibly do very well here, but he could do little without capital.
Remember me to all my St. Louis and Keokuk friends, and tell Challie and
Hallie Renson that I heard a military band play "What are the Wild Waves
Saying?" the other night, and it reminded me very forcibly of them. It
brought Ella Creel and Belle across the Desert too in an instant, for
they sang the song in Orion's yard the first time I ever heard it. It
was like meeting an old friend. I tell you I could have swallowed that
whole band, trombone and all, if such a compliment would have been any
gratification to them.
Love to the young folks,
The reference in the foregoing letter to Esmeralda has to do with mining
plans. He was beginning to be mildly interested, and, with his brother
Orion, had acquired "feet" in an Esmeralda camp, probably at a very small
price--so small as to hold out no exciting prospect of riches. In his
next letter he gives us the size of this claim, which he has visited.
His interest, however, still appears to be chiefly in his timber claim on
Lake Bigler (Tahoe), though we are never to hear of it again after this